Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ducey: "I Choose the School Funding Plan Behind Door Number Two!"

Posted By on Thu, Sep 3, 2015 at 6:00 PM

Mark Twain once said — or almost said — "Everybody talks about Arizona school funding but nobody does anything about it." Actually, Twain was talking about the weather, and even more actually, he may have said those words during one of his lectures, but he was probably quoting Charles Dudley Warner, a contemporary who cowrote the novel 'The Gilded Age' with Twain. (Your friendly local retired English teacher says, "You're welcome for those exciting tidbits of literary trivia.")

Here in Arizona, we seem to be equally helpless when it comes to doing anything about the weather and education funding. I'll give us a pass on this extraordinarily hot summer, which may be related to climate change but can't be laid directly at Arizona's feet. However, when it comes to education funding, the fault is not in our stars [or changing climate conditions], but in ourselves, as Cassius said to Brutus in Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' (Once again, you're welcome). And by "ourselves," I mean our Republican elected officials.

Right now, we have three options for increasing education funding.

Behind Door Number One is the most straightforward and doable of the three options. The legislature simply does what the courts have told them to do and increases school funding by around $330 million for this school year. (There's also that pesky $1.3 billion the lege owes the schools for past years when it refused to follow the law and raise funding for inflation, but that's a separate matter.) If Republicans choose Door Number One — which they could do during a special session, like, tomorrow — all they have to do is open the door and pick up the money stacked on a table in neat million dollar bundles, courtesy of unexpected tax revenues which have poured in recently. They can hand it to schools with smiles on their faces, and it can be used right away to help educate this year's crop of students.

The Republican-dominated legislature has decided it doesn't like Door Number One. Settlement talks over a funding fix, which could have been resolved by agreeing to pay the money, broke down recently. And, according to Jim Nintzel who knows far more about the state's legislative history than I ever will, the lege may not comply with the court order any time soon.
[L]awmakers have been known to let these things drag on rather than resolve them, even when a court order is involved. In the 1990s, a more moderate legislature allowed a lawsuit over school construction and repair to drag on for eight years before resolving it. (And the state still isn't taking care of needed repairs at many schools.)
I guess Republicans can fold their arms across their chests like petulant children, say, "You're not the boss of me!" and get away with it. 

Governor Ducey has a plan on his own behind Door Number Two. He wants to take money from the state land trust fund and use it to boost spending on schools. Open that door and you'll find a maze filled with winding paths, some of which lead to dead ends. First the legislature has to decide to put the funding idea on the ballot, which it may not do. Dead End. And once it's on the ballot, the voters may not pass it. Dead End. Meanwhile, working diligently inside the maze is Jeff DeWit, the man who holds Ducey's previous job as state treasurer. DeWit is building a few additional roadblocks of his own as he tries to convince people that taking money from the land trust fund is a bad idea.

Then there's Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan's plan behind Door Number Three. They want to add around $500 million a year to school funding by stealing money from the First Things First funds which are supposed to be used for early childhood education, adding additional school funding in the next years' budgets and taking some money from the state land trust fund. The light is burnt out behind that door, so it's hard to see anything, but if you look closely, you'll find a confused cluster of arrows pointing in a dozen different directions and a few large question marks hanging from the ceiling.

The big problem with Door Number One, the straightforward plan that involves using some of the state surplus to give schools the money the courts say they should have, is that it actually would be doing something. Republicans would rather talk about the weather school funding endlessly that do anything to increase it.

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